The Julianna Barwick album release show at Judson Memorial Church felt like a music recital. The atmosphere was surprisingly adult considering most of the audience was 25 or younger. The church’s interior, which I was told is used for multi-denominational services, is beautiful, painted pale blue with stained-glass windows and a high ceiling. There even were white flower arrangements on the music stands (yes, music stands) in front of the empty chairs on stage. Barwick was the only performer, and it was hard to know what to expect. I’d seen her a few times before, always solo, and she always was fantastic at summoning the almost inhuman beauty of her music into a physical space, whether that was a dive bar or the Guggenheim.
I haven’t heard the new album yet, but from both what I heard at the show and recent interviews with her, it seems Nepenthe is a new direction for Barwick. Her last album, the stunning The Magic Place, had a consistent and winning formula: all of the songs started with a few lone ethereal sighs that built through looping into sonic jacuzzis full of flower petals or kittens or something else unbelievably calming. It was very nice, almost spiritually so (hence the appropriateness of her playing in a church). The new album seems like it takes a somewhat more experimental route. The songs she performed alongside a viola player and guitarist did not swell into climaxes and then sigh into silence, but had unpredictable structures and sometimes surprisingly stark moments of just her keyboard playing or squeaky viola sounds. Whereas on her first album each song was a gorgeous free-standing whole that was slowly illuminated into view and then dimmed out over the course of a few minutes, her new material feels more like a painting you never see in its entirety, different sections of which are lit up and then darkened again.
There is something otherworldly about watching Julianna Barwick perform; unlike many artists that employ vocal loops, there seems to be a distance between what she sings and what eventually is heard, and the melodies don’t add up as you think they will (the only other artist I’ve seen who does this in quite the same way is the under-appreciated Lichens). In the past, Julianna Barwick was always a solitary artist, and she’s spent most of her life making music totally alone, so the slight awkwardness and tentative feel of her collaborations was understandable. Later in the set, she had the girls from Prince Rama and two other women join her for backing vocals, which didn’t add as much as I’d hoped. She came back for an encore of one of her songs off The Magic Place, and her ease made it clear she is still much more comfortable as a solo artist. Then the concert was unceremoniously over, and we all drank the free champagne.